Grand Avenue Gym: DeQuincy landmark fading fast, group fighting to save it says

The Grand Avenue Gym, an important part of the DeQuincy Black community’s history, could be slated for condemnation and demolition. An alumni association wants to see the building saved. Its members blame the city of DeQuincy — building and land owner — for not making repairs after it was damaged by hurricanes, and for leaving it open to vagrants. DeQuincy Mayor Riley Smith said he’s not opposed to the group’s purchase of the property for preservation; however, he has gotten some complaints that it is an eyesore.

“The gym was covered with a tarp after Hurricane Laura,” said Linda Ned, president of PRD&G. “Unfortunately Hurricane Delta exacerbated the problem and the gym has been water damaged.”

An architect for the Louisiana Trust for Historic Places remembers visiting the location to take photos in 2021. At the time, he noted the floor had buckled in places, and that was the worst of the damage.      

On state’s most endangered list

Saturday, June 22, the PRD&G Alumni Association was at the DeQuincy Juneteenth celebration to raise awareness about the plight of structure. Placed on the National List of Historic Places in 2017, it was added to Louisiana’s Trust for Historic Preservation Most Endangered Places list in 2021.

PRD&G is an acronym for the various Black schools in DeQuincy before integration, starting with the Pioneer school that started in Evergreen Baptist Church. The first school built on the property was the historic Rosenwald School. Rosenwald schools were built between 1912 and 1932 to counter the underfunding of education for Black students in public schools. The “D” stands for DeQuincy Colored School and the “G” for Grand Avenue High School.  In the ’70s, after schools in DeQuincy were integrated, Grand Avenue High School became DeQuincy Middle School. DMS closed in 1989 and the Calcasieu Parish School Board transferred the school and land to DeQuincy. Now, all that’s left is the gym, a gym where Grand Avenue defeated the Cameron-Audrey Memorial High School boy’s basketball team 211-29 and where 7-foot, 5-inch Delores Pullard, who once held the Guinness World Record as the tallest woman was passed the ball by teammates and scored with little effort.

Once a community center

Cynthia Pierfax remembers the importance of the gym after the school closed and it was used as a community center.

“Reflecting on my career in 4-H Youth Development, I recognize my passion for working within the Black community was sparked by my experiences at Grand Avenue. I still vividly remember the sense of belonging, love and understanding show by people like Big June, Ms. Dixon, Ms. JoAnn and others.

“Lately, it has been left open to the public, and now vagrants have been inside, Cameras were installed and stolen. New window panes have been busted. The floor is covered with trash, broken glass bottles and window pane fragments,” said Alice Danclar. She’s a member of the alumni association and graduated from Grand Avenue High School in 1967.

All the trophies and other memorabilia that we had stored in a room inside the gym are gone, added Ned,     

PRD&G said the city could have done more to improve the property before the hurricanes, to protect it immediately after the hurricanes, or even later when the city received FEMA funds to repair other hurricane-damaged buildings, the gym did not figure into the plan. At the very least, members thought the city could have kept it boarded up so that vagrants could not enter.    

“If they would have secured it, I don’t think it would have gotten to this stage,” Ned said.

The PRD&G wants the city to donate the property and structure that the Calcasieu Parish School Board transferred to it in 1989 and establish a cooperative endeavor agreement for help with the work needed to get the building up to code in the same way the city has helped a local church and the ballpark. The alumni has grant applications ready that appear to be slam dunks, but those cannot be submitted if the property is not in the group’s name. They have also called in a construction company for its opinion on the soundness of the structure, and a refurbishing estimate.     

City cannot give away property

On Monday, Smith, and City Planner and local real estate agent Kim Rainwater said government entities may not sell property for far less than the appraised value nor donate property based on a rule from the Louisiana Auditor’s office, and the auditor’s office confirmed.     

Rainwater said she asked PRD&G to sign a Letter of Intent if they wanted to purchase the property. No one ever signed it. A representative from the PRD&G said she was reluctant to sign the Letter of Intent without knowing the appraisal value. Without a Letter of Intent, Rainwater said the city could not spend the money to pay for an appraisal; however, the city would deduct the cost of demolition from the appraisal Riley and Rainwater said.

Riley said the city has put money into the property, maintained the grass, and has kept the property insured up until recently, but now only pays “liability.” The city of DeQuincy also helped with funds needed to buy some filters for the air conditioner when the structure was used for community activities,” Riley said.     

“I really don’t know a lot about it because I inherited it,” Riley said. He was elected in 2018 and is serving his second term. Rainwater came on board in 2019.

“I tried to meet with some people from that association and no one showed up,” Riley said. During a conference call with PRD&G officers, one of the officers said that no meeting was canceled without notice.

During his conversation with the American Press Riley said the building was declared structurally unsound by the parish. Rainwater was unable to find records.

Dan Broussard, with the Calcasieu Parish Police Jury Department of Planning & Development said that theparish does not issue declarations of unsound structures.

“That requires an engineer,” he said.

Broussard said the city of DeQuincy contacted his office Tuesday and asked for an inspector to be sent out. The parish checklist for condemned structures includes buildings that can pose a threat to public safety, for instance broken windows and buildings open to vagrants. (On Saturday, June 22, the door to the gym was wide open.)

When asked about FEMA monies available to repair the structure, Rainwater said the city, like many municipalities, is just now getting around to repairs. She named the DeQuincy Railroad Museum, the city’s tourist attraction.   

“We recently had a request from another citizen about helping to preserve a building (not on the National Register), and it’s just like I told him, the city just doesn’t have a million dollars to help. I wish we could.”

The Louisiana Trust for Historic Preservation Most Endangered Places List is a useful tool for attracting funding and resources needed to save and rehabilitate sites, create awareness and demonstrate the importance of these places to the local community, state identity and economy.

If PRD&G acquires the building, it would be eligible for state tax credits for about 30 percent of the rehabilitation costs. The city is not eligible for such tax credits.

If the property is purchased by a for-profit  it would be eligible for 55 percent of repair cost as  a tax credit. The school is located on a main highway/entrance to DeQuincy.

City resolved to move forward

On Thursday, Smith said the city currently has no plans for the property. If the PRD&G is able to purchase and refurbish it, he will be supportive. They were offered a lease and turned it down, he said.

He noted that building a community center from the ground up might be less expensive than refurbishing the gym, and if PRD&G is not able to acquire the property, then demolishing the building would make the property more marketable to developers.

“I learned so much at that gym when it was open as a community center,” said Dr. T’Chyra Silas. “It helped mold and shape me professionally. Before I was old enough to work for the summer program, I went to the gym to get help with school work and sometimes just burn energy playing and enjoying being with other kids. It was a safe haven. We learned the importance of discipline. Unfortunately, kids growing up in this community today don’t have the same support. I hope the community comes together to restore it, to bring back the Grand Avenue Gym, a true gem of the community.”

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